Inspectors and license penalties may be added to enforce COVID rules at bars

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Today marks just two weeks since bars on Oahu were allowed to reopen, and already many complaints have been raised about lax adherence to COVID guidelines. One lawmaker wants the liquor commission to get involved.

Currently it’s up to the Honolulu Police Department to deal with violations of public health orders on Oahu. But liquor licenses could be on the line — and liquor inspectors could soon regulate COVID rules — under a plan one councilmember devised. Without better compliance, it’s a warning Honolulu could have to roll back re-openings.

We’ve seen it happen on the mainland: packed bars and clubs, spikes in COVID cases. This week brought rollbacks of re-openings, with some governors and mayors saying bars proved too risky and patrons too noncompliant with COVID rules.

“Unless we continue to maintain the necessary precautions and we don’t let our guard down, then we could find ourselves in the situation many mainland cities or jurisdictions are now experiencing, where there is huge spiking in the coronavirus cases,” said Honolulu City Councilmember Ron Menor, “and because of those negative things happening, government officials are having to cut back and to require the closure of businesses that were allowed to reopen.”

Menor says he’s heard multiple complaints already, just two weeks into Honolulu bars being back in business. Through a resolution he introduced, Res20-160, Menor is asking the Honolulu Liquor Commission to get involved to help police COVID rule compliance.  

“I introduced the resolution because of complaints that I have received about establishments that serve alcohol not complying with the mayor’s public health directives,” Menor said, “including maintaining social distancing between customers, the wearing of face masks by employees and limiting the occupancy to no more than 50% of the capacity of the facility. This lack of compliance really does concern and trouble me because I believe that it will contribute to the spread of COVID-19 throughout our communities.”

KHON2 has also heard from concerned viewers who have shared scenes from packed bars and clubs, and who told us that police so far have not made it out to the spots in response to complaint calls.

One viewer shared what the city’s COVID response information team answered after a complaint, telling the viewer: ” You are correct, nightclubs are not allowed to be open at this time. We do ask if folks see a business or person that is in violation, please call 9-1-1 (non-emergency) to report the name of the business or person in violation, location (address), and a summary of the violation. I am sorry to hear that your report to HPD was not followed up on. I will pass this information along to them.”

“The Honolulu Police Department is responsible for enforcing the mayor’s emergency orders,” Menor said. “I don’t think that this is enough, especially since law enforcement at HPD have other important enforcement responsibilities that they need to carry out.”

Menor says that’s where an agency like the Honolulu Liquor Commission can step in.

“Their inspectors who routinely inspect these establishments could assist the city in enforcing and monitoring compliance with the mayor’s emergency orders,” Menor said, “and if necessary to suspend and/or revoke the licenses of persistent violators.”

Industry veterans say most bars on Oahu are being very careful, following the rules, and keeping staff and patrons safe. They, too, are calling on all to be compliant so that everyone can stay safely in business.

“They’ve just got to do it, it’s just got to be done primarily for the health cause,” said Don Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Bar & Grill. “Be safe and have a safe Fourth of July, and please follow the rules. This is going to be a big weekend. We don’t need to see a big spike here.”

Menor says his plan has buy-in from the mayor, city attorneys, and the liquor commission. Menor says it could launch as soon as next month.

The mayor’s spokesperson told KHON2 in a statement: “It’s incumbent on bars to follow the rules that have been put into place to protect public health. We hope that these establishments will all follow these new regulations, and in cases that the regulations aren’t being followed, trust the Liquor Commission to help enforce when necessary.”

Menor says he has asked the administration to allocate a portion of the city’s federal CARES Act money to hire additional compliance personnel. We’ll follow up if the plan moves forward.

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